From paralysis to politics, Penn State’s Adam Taliaferro becomes NJ lawmaker

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 Adam Taliaferro, a Penn State football player who suffered serious spinal cord injuries on the field, was sworn in as member of the New Jersey State Assembly. A former Gloucester County freeholder, Taliaferro was appointed to the seat vacated by Democratic Assemblywoman Celeste Riley.(Mel Evans/AP Photo, file)

Adam Taliaferro, a Penn State football player who suffered serious spinal cord injuries on the field, was sworn in as member of the New Jersey State Assembly. A former Gloucester County freeholder, Taliaferro was appointed to the seat vacated by Democratic Assemblywoman Celeste Riley.(Mel Evans/AP Photo, file)

Politics was never the game plan for Adam Taliaferro, New Jersey’s newest state lawmaker. Perhaps because he’s accustomed to twists of fate, Taliaferro talks breezily about how unlikely this all would have seemed to him not too long ago.

“I would’ve gotten a good laugh out of it,” he said when asked if someone were to predict, just years ago, the political path he’s now chosen. “Even to this day, being sworn in, I’m sitting there looking around, and I say, ‘Who would’ve thought I’d be in this position?'”

In 2000, Taliaferro was a freshman at Penn State and a starting defensive back for the school’s football team. With less than two minutes left in the fifth game of his college career, Penn State was far behind rival Ohio State. That’s when he made a play that took his life on a terrifying turn.

“It was a play I made a thousand times before,” Taliaferro recalled. “I went in to make a tackle, and I remember waking up on the ground and unable to move anything, and the thought of being paralyzed went through my head because you always think the bad things happen to someone else.”

The impact left Taliaferro with a broken neck and bruised spinal cord, rendering him paralyzed from the neck down.

Doctors expected that he’d never walk again. Taliaferro’s parents kept the prognosis a secret, figuring telling him would be too emotionally devastating. They kept rooting for him and holding on to hope.

A small sign of recovery

Four weeks after the injury, Taliaferro had a small sign that he’d soon defy doctors’ prognosis.

“I got some movement in my toe,” he said. “And that’s when I thought, ‘Man, I might have a second chance to walk again.'”

From there, he rocketed to recovery, walking out of the hospital with crutches months later. It surprised doctors and launched him in the national spotlight.

The rebound spurred on his ambition. He went to law school, became a personal injury attorney, then worked as a lobbyist for pharmaceutical company Bristol-Myers Squibb.

He also started a foundation for victims of spinal cord injuries. He stays in contact in particular with football players who’ve had similar experiences, including Eric LeGrand, the former Rutgers player who remains wheelchair-bound from a paralyzing tackle in 2010 in a game against Army.

To LeGrand and others, Taliaferro has said that progress unfolds incrementally, and though his case can serve as inspriation, it’s not the way most emerge from spinal injuries. 

“Don’t look at walking as the epitome of recovery,” Taliaferro said. “They’re going to learn to move something, or learn to live life in a different way. But you’re going to get better from the point that you’re in.”

Embarking on a career in politics

All this came before winning election as a freeholder, a countywide elected official, in Gloucester County, in South Jersey. 

The “helping people” aspect of public service drew him in, he said.

When a representative from the Democratic State Committee called him at his home recently asking if he’d be interesting in filling a vacancy in the New Jersey Legislature, he thought, “Well, I guess these opportunities don’t come around too often.”

Access to quality health care, Taliaferro said, is among his top issues, noting his recovery would not have been possible without top-notch care.

Despite the injury, which has left him with a slight limp and other small complications, he’s still an avid football fan, attending Penn State games when he can and keeping up with friends who are now professional players. He’s quick to admit, though, that his mom never much liked the sport.

“I really think my accident was a freak accident. I could’ve just as easily been injured in a car accident, or something crazy like that. If I have kids, if anyone asks me, I’d be more than happy to let anyone I care about play football,” he said.

Taliaferro took the oath of office Thursday. He’ll represent South Jersey’s 3rd District after Assemblywoman Celeste Riley stepped down for another job.

Later this year, Taliaferro will be asking voters to send him back to Trenton for a full term.

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